1960. Elvis has been kidnapped by Uncle Sam. Buddy Holly is dead, and Little Richard has found the Lord. Into the vacuum rises a counterrevolutionary force of adenoidal adolescents like Bobby Vee, Frankie Avalon, Fabian and former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. These pop puppets, with their Tin Pan Ailey songs and Sta-Brite smiles, actually managed to neutralize rock & roll's threat for several years.
It's happening again. Welcome to the new Teen Age. In a distant demographic echo of the postwar baby boom, the American teen population has reached the kind of critical mass that makes the culture industry sit up and listen. Teen spending power is reshaping pop culture, filling our TV screens with teen dramas and our multiplexes with teen movies. It has also put a perky new beat on the pop charts, where the devotional vaporings of boy bands have vanquished the roiling rock angst of the early to mid-Nineties.
'N Sync, Backstreet Boys and 98 are now choking on dust from the high-steppin' heels of Miss Britney Spears. Spears, who shares a manager with 'N Sync and a label with Backstreet Boys, screamed off the production line early this year and became the first solo artist of the Sound-Scan era to lodge a debut single and album atop the charts simultaneously, in the album's first week of release.
But for all the fan-mag prose that greeted Spears' explosive marketplace entry, we know precious little about her beyond an image that hints at several stereotypes. Is Spears bubblegum jailbait, jaded crossover diva or malleable Stepford teen? Who knows? Whether by design or not, the queen of America's new Teen Age is a distinctly modern anomaly: the anonymous superstar.
Lynne Spears is issuing crisp directions to the family's home in Kentwood, an hour north of New Orleans. "Turn off Highway 55..." says the husky voiced Louisiana native, "then onto 51... turn right when you pass the Burning Bush."
The Burning Bush? A bar? Restaurant? Strip club?
"No, it's an actual bush that's burning in our neighbor's yard. You can't miss it."
Such religious portent is fitting, for, in record-industry terms at least, Britney Jean Spears is a golden child — the chart-topping apotheosis of a generation that's breathing life into an imperiled business. MTV VJ Carson Daly is intimately acquainted with the habits of teenagers — not just through dating the newly twenty-year-old scream queen Jennifer Love Hewitt but via his stewardship of the station's afternoon call-in and e-mail show, Total Request Live. "Teens don't have an attention span anymore," says Daly, 25. "They just want to feel good for those four minutes, then go hit the Internet. They don't want to take things too seriously, and they wanna move—tempo is everything. Britney is a poster child for them."
Being a generational mascot brings with it certain responsibilities. "You want to be a good example for kids out there and not do something stupid," Spears says. "Kids have low self-esteem, and then the peer pressures come and they go into a wrong crowd. That's when all the bad stuff starts happening, drugs and stuff. I think if they find something that keeps them happy — writing, drawing, anything like that — then they'll have confidence."
Spears, who won her first talent show when she was six, sounds more middle-aged than teenage as she delivers this brisk message. Doesn't she think that people her age are struggling with self-esteem because of a torrent of media images that promote feelings of inadequacy? Spears thinks about this for a moment. "When people see things on TV that they can't do," she ventures, "that should make them want to go out there and make something of themselves. That's how I looked at it."
The very first low, aching "Ooh bay-by bay-by" that Britney Spears whispered into the public's ear strongly suggested that this wasn't your average seventeen-year old. It's still hard to equate those salacious syllables with the basketball-playing, churchgoing schoolkid who would travel an hour to shop at her nearest Abercrombie and Fitch. As Max Martin says, "People like the song — then they see the video and it's like, 'Fuck!'" You can see that kid in the family photographs and Britney-bilia that dominate the walls of the Spears household. Nestled among them — near the picture of Britney with Ed McMahon from her Star Search performance, in 1992 — is a picture of the star with her prom date, a gangly youth wearing moccasins with his dress pants. This is Reg, Britney's only boyfriend, with whom she had a two-year relationship. It came to an end when the strains of her budding career began to take their toll.
"It wasn't that I was changing," says Spears. "We broke up before any of my success had happened. He became insecure with himself, I felt. I wasn't gonna do anything — I'm a straight-up, honest person, and if I was gonna do something, I'd tell him before I'd do it and end the relationship. I was really head over heels in love. I don't think I'll ever love somebody like that again....I just woke up one day and click, it was gone." Spears shrugs off the rumors linking her with both Lance Bass and Justin Timberlake of 'N Sync. "Overseas they say it's Nick Carter of Backstreet Boys," she notes wryly. Right now, she says, she prefers to concentrate on her work rather than romance. "I have," she says, "no feelings at all."
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